We’ve all got one. The one we weren’t allowed to look at; the one we had to admire in secret, from a distance. One more appropriate to deny than to acknowledge, to dismiss than to appreciate.
Guilty pleasures in football usually cross supporting lines. It’s very seldom that one can support one of the top sides and not suddenly themselves in awe, in nearly shameful veneration of a particular talent that not only plays for a rival team, but in fact produces footballing displays worthy of respect and justified envy.
This series of articles is about those players. Some of them played for your club’s worst of enemies, some of them even contributed to nights of disappointment for you and your supporter brethren. It’s one of those weird situations for a football fan where you tend to question yourself where your true allegiances lie – with your team or with the sport itself. It’s one of those times when you allow yourself to enjoy the purity of the game that you see in the way some players play, that let you immerse yourself into the sport in the first place, ignoring the rude fact that they don’t wear the colors you support and ruder when you realize, they’re your sworn enemy.
For me, the enemy while I was growing up was Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Besides the traditional rivalry between Manchester United and Liverpool, as someone that has been following the Premier League from the sub-continent since the early 2000’s – it was always about Arsenal and United. They were at the peak of their powers, vying for the big prize year-in year-out, an era when there was more to rivalries than an innocuous bunch of witty one-liners during the game on social media and an utterly pointless hashtag fest after. In those days, hatred was raw and real and almost always extended to the pitch and thereby the players themselves and the fire was only fueled by the managers – who, it would seem, enjoyed the attention and drama as much as the fans watching from all over the world, contributing to the legend of English football.
I absolutely despised anything to do with Arsenal at the time, something I still do, but as exceptions go, there was something about this footballer that just made it impossible to hate – no matter how hard I tried. Dennis Bergkamp, arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 1995, signed for quite a hefty fee valued close to £7.5 million by Bruce Rioch (and not Arsene), a fact that some of the younger generation of Arsenal fans might not be aware of. My early memories of him was when he was literally tearing the opposition to shreds in Wenger’s first full season in charge, 1997/98 and the first hat-trick that he scored against Leicester City at Filbert Street – a majestic performance I had the privilege to enjoy in the form of words of sheer admiration through the BBC radio commentary – thanks to my late Arsenal supporting grandfather. The goals were so good that Martin O’Neill, manager of Leicester City at the time admitted that was probably the best hat-trick he’d ever seen – says something.
But certainly my most memorable moment associated with the Dutchman took place in the cruel 2001-02 season on a personal level for me when Arsenal made history – winning the league at Old Trafford, something they will never hesitate to remind and even today, a part of me flinches at the sight of Sylvain Wiltord capping off a resolute Arsenal performance with a fine finish that secured their second Premier League title under the Frenchman. It was the busy month of March in 2002 and Bergkamp had been banned for a total of 3 matches for one of ‘those’ tackles on Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher. He returned to the field against Newcastle United and marked his comeback with what is widely regarded as the best goal ever scored in the Premier League based on pure technique and execution and quite rightly so.
The goal itself is hard to describe in words for they might not do the justice it commands. The mechanism and the science behind the goal – the way he caressed the ball with his left foot going away from the defender while him going the other way luring the spectators as much as the unenviable defender Nikos Dabizas into a sense of shock at first followed by an incomprehensible moment of joy that only sport, and football in particular, can produce.
It was football genius – an actual piece of football genius. Not the type of genius Brendan Rodgers and David Moyes were. He was footballing royalty in that not many footballers played as well as they talked. Bergkamp, again, was one of the exceptions. ‘Behind every kick of the ball there has to be a thought’ he said. And so there indeed was a lot of thinking behind his every move, turn and kick – it was as complicated and intricate as it was beautiful in the eye. As for me, it was a shame he had to ply his trade for a team I loathed with a passion. But I have no regrets about it.